I Used to Be an Archaeologist

Published 2008-04-21
This is one of my favorite essays

I spent a portion of my weekend sorting and cleaning some of my old bike tools. Mixed in with which were the bare core of my archaeological field kit. Said discovery occasioned me to reflect on a life I used to have: I used to be an archaeologist.

I left that life behind nine years ago. After seven years of chasing work around the country, I wanted to put myself into a place first, and a job second. That’s when I took up the website-making stuff.

When people learn about this past life, they wonder either or both of two things:

  1. Why I ever left it for web design
  2. How my archaeological work prepared me conceptually for web design

The answer to the first question is easy: because it’s so much easier to find jobs designing websites. This is not, for me, a matter of income: I could (and did) happily live on my archaeologist salary. No, what makes website design a better career is that no one, ever, has said to me “you’re lucky even to have a job.” I think I heard this phrase, or variations thereof, from nearly all of my archaeology bosses, even the good ones whom I liked and who valued my abilities. The sad fact of having a job title like “archaeologist” is that the supply of people with that title far outstrips the demand.

The answer to the second question is also easy, but most people don’t like to hear it. So I don’t tell them. I think studying anthropology excellently prepared me for heavy-duty brain work, as I’ve written about previously. (Grad school also gave me another headstart on web design, but the reason was historical. I started grad school in 1995 when the web was young and unfettered high-speed Internet access kind of tricky to come by. By virtue of my status as a grad student at the University of Oregon, I had time-share access to Unix web servers, and fast ethernet.) But really, I’d have had (most of) this preparation if I’d have gone straight from my undergraduate degree, through grad school, and into the non-anthropology workforce. It has more to do with the great ability of a liberal education to prepare a person for nothing and everything all at once, provided that person is actually paying attention.

One perceptive person once deduced that archaeology — especially geoarchaeology, which I was pretty good at — conditioned the mind to think four-dimensionally, which was useful lateral training for work with computers. Everyone else sees some connection between the patience or care they imagine archaeologists use in excavation, and web design. I don’t buy that at all, because archaeology really doesn’t require that much patience or attention (just good note-taking), and web design doesn’t require it at all.

No, the real (and very prosaic) answer to “how did your archaeological work prepare you conceptually for web design” is “because it got me working with databases.” That’s really the only connection between what I used to do a decade ago and what I do now.

I often miss archaeology, because it’s a very satisfying job in its daily details. I particularly miss working and living outdoors. The career also provided a good mix of brainwork and hard physical labor, a combination lacking in most other (any other?) jobs. For the sake of reminiscence, I scanned a few old photos of my archaeology self, shaggy hair, beard, sunburn and all.